Education / Back to School: A new school was child's play for the kids, but a trial for me: Viewpoint

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The Independent Online
Everybody seems to know somebody as I stand and watch the laughing, talking groups in the playground. Waves of anxiety come over me as I approach one group to ask a child over to play.

No, I am not still at school, but I feel as if I might as well be. 'You must be Katherine's mother,' I falter. 'Our children seem to play together at nursery and I was wondering if you would let her come round one afternoon.'

'Sure, I'd been meaning to do the same myself. Name your date.' Acceptance. I've broken into a clique. Relief at last.

But now it's September and my daughter is starting her new school. The same process will start all over again and my knowledge of the intimidating and isolating nature of the playground makes me far more apprehensive about the new term than she is.

As adults, we've been there before. We know the importance of belonging to a group, of being on the inside of that powerful clique, and how lonely it can be on the outside. This time, however, I have the additional burden of feeling that if I am on the outside, my child will be too.

And these groups are important. From the school's point of view, they are the principal link between the home and school communities. Parental contact is normally much better in primary schools because children are collected. Parents see the teachers regularly and this adds to their sense of involvement with that school. A school's reputation can almost rest on it.

Mothers at the school gate also provide a powerful network of support and information for each other. If you need advice, or a shoulder to cry on, there's usually someone who can give it. If you're stuck for child care someone will always lend a hand and, perhaps most importantly, they are the source of your child's social life.

Going round to a friend's house for tea is as important to a four-year-old as it is to a 34-year-old. It is confirmation that you are liked and that you belong, and this in turn can effect the child's sense of well-being in the school.

But cliques by their nature exclude. A friend of mine had a child who was perceived by other mothers as difficult before he'd even arrived in the nursery. Parents avoided her and told their children to avoid him. Several even complained to the teacher about his antics outside school. She had to look beyond the school gate for help.

Working mothers also have a problem. If they are lucky enough to have hours that allow them on occasion to collect or drop off their children it is a great help, but they are still isolated from total involvement in that network. They only have the weekends for return visits and many child carers understandably do not like them to make social arrangements while the child is in their charge.

Child carers themselves are often equally isolated unless they are also parents at the school. My daughter's nanny has never been spoken to once - and she takes her to and from school three days a week. She says she feels as if she doesn't count because she is not a parent and so is automatically excluded from the club. Her network is other nannies.

Bottom of the list come men. I see several fathers hurl their children through the classroom door in their rush to get to work. None stops to talk. But what of those who are the principle carers? A friend of mine was recently made redundant. His partner had gone back to full-time work, so they got rid of the child minder and took he over at home.

He has not found it easy. Most of the three children's social life is still arranged by their mother, based on her knowledge of the network when she was at home and working part time. This is not his fault. While they are happy to let the children play at his house, the mothers view him with some suspicion at the school gate. Like my friend with the difficult son, he relies more on friends who do not have children at the same school.

Fortunately our children often have more social nous than their parents. It was at my daughter's insistence that I spoke to Katherine's mother. She made me break through my reserve.

In the end the problem boy made friends in school and, though her network was not wide, his mother generally had someone to talk to by the end of the year.

It may sound corny, but as parents at the school gate we should all try to talk to each other, if only for the sake of others. They are probably feeling just as bad about starting a new school as we are.